Spring Practice No. 13
• Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt addressed reporters before Tuesday’s practice, but the biggest revelation came afterward from offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh said he expects the quarterback competition to come down to either Bill Stull or Kevan Smith, something that may come as a shock to those expecting it to be handed to blue-chip recruit Pat Bostick of Manheim Township when he arrives this summer.
“He’s going to come in and get a chance to compete a little bit, but not being here in the spring is a setback for him,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s missing 15 practices and he’s going to start from square one when he gets here. He’s been here, been studying a little bit and watching practice, but there’s nothing like being under center.
“We’ll certainly take a look at him and see how he compares, but he’s going to be behind. I think these two guys are going to battle and, hopefully, one of them steps up and makes it an easy decision.”
• Cavanaugh also called the decision to make both quarterbacks live to full contact “a great idea” and said he wasn’t worried about either Stull or Smith getting injured.
“When you know it’s live, you’ve got to be prepared for it,” Cavanaugh said. “The best part is there’s an opportunity for bodies to be flying around them and they know that at any point they can get hit. I think it’s been great for them. They take a hit and what happens? They go on to the next play. That’s the real world.
“It would be one thing if one of them was so established here like (three-year starter Tyler) Palko was that we wouldn’t run the risk of getting them hurt, but these kids are smart, tough kids that want to compete. They know there’s a job open there.”
• Wannstedt already has identified at least two players who weren’t in the starting lineup as penciled-in starters this season: Redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop and sophomore cornerback Aaron Berry.
No surprise there, as Wannstedt repeatedly has praised both this spring.
Berry possesses the talent and competitive drive to help the Panthers withstand the loss of Darrelle Revis to the NFL. When Stull rolled right to escape pressure in the pocket and tried to throw it out of bounds, Berry tiptoed on the sidelines and picked off his pass. Later, Berry delivered a big hit on receiver Marcel Pestano.
McKillop, meanwhile, has emerged as a sure tackler and vocal leader of the defense. Several times this spring, Wannstedt has said that McKillop “is a better player than I would have hoped” and is capable of replacing All-American H.B. Blades.
• That doesn’t mean Wannstedt is set on his current crop of linebackers. Shane Murray’s transition from safety to weak-side linebacker has been a pleasant surprise, but the strong-side linebacker spot seems to be wide open. Redshirt junior Adam Gunn has spent the spring with the first team, but redshirt freshman Nate Nix is closing in.
In fact, Wannstedt spoke at length about Nix.
“Nate Nix has made a lot of progress. From where he started at and where he’s at right now, he’s just beginning to look like a linebacker,” Wannstedt said. “The scheme is different. In high school, he played on the line of scrimmage, did a lot of blitzing. Our linebackers obviously play off the line, run to the ball. That’s been an adjustment for Nate, but he’s done a good job.”
Outside of Scott McKillop, who Wannstedt called a “sure starter,” the competition at linebacker will be intense in August. Nix and Gunn will vie for the strong-side, with Murray and Dorin Dickerson – who returned to practice today – competing for the weak-side job. Wannstedt is ruling out flip-flopping the ‘backers again, either.
Wannstedt also isn’t discounting redshirt freshmen Greg Webster (Crohn’s disease) and Dan Loheyde (torn ACL) from making full recoveries or incoming freshmen Max Gruder, Brandon Lindsey or Tristan Roberts
“I think going into the fall, there’s going to be some serious competition at all the linebacker spots, between Dickerson and Nix and Gunn competing,” Wannstedt said. “You’ve got Shane Murray and hopefully we can get Greg Webster back and Dan Loheyde should be 100 percent by the time we start practicing in the fall. But linebacker is probably a position where we’re going to have to rely on the incoming freshman to come in and compete and see where they stack up, particularly with special teams help.”
• For those who expected Nix to walk in and start immediately, Wannstedt offered an explanation. (Let me premise this by noting that Nix arrived at training camp last August at 198 pounds). Everything is new to Nix, who spent last season as a redshirt, playing linebacker on the scout team to help the starters prepare for their opponents.
“He’s a great example of a guy who comes in as a freshman and all he does is run scout team,” Wannstedt said. “Every week he’s just reading the card. It’s difficult to be a redshirt freshman and be on the scout team, when they’re not getting coached one-on-one every day. That’s why the bowl game practices and spring practice is so important for these kids.”
• Wannstedt called senior left tackle Jeff Otah, a junior-college transfer participating in his first spring drills, “our best offensive lineman.”
Perhaps the best compliment to Otah is that you haven’t heard senior defensive end Chris McKillop’s name much this spring. It’s not because of McKilllop’s play, which has been solid. At right end, the 255-pound McKillop has to go head-to-head with the 340-pound Otah on a daily basis and Otah has won his share of battles.
• On the flip side, the coaching staff used to call junior left guard C.J. Davis their best offensive lineman. That Otah has surpassed him in that regard has a lot to do with who Davis is lining up against every day in practice.
Wannstedt stopped just short of saying junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas has been dominating play this spring. Mustakas came into camp with less weight on his waistline and rear end, and is getting into the backfield regularly.
“Gus has really stepped up. You don’t want to use that word, a ‘dominating’ type of player – a playmaker – but Gus is getting close,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a situation where every time the ball is snapped, he’s making a lot of plays. That’s what he’s capable of doing.”
• When Wannstedt praised senior safety Mike Phillips, it proved to be an ominous sign. Phillips has battled leg injuries the past two seasons, but was showing signs of returning to form this spring after being nudged by sharing first-team reps with sophomore Elijah Fields.
“I thought Mike Phillips probably had as good a day Saturday as he’s had in two years,” Wannstedt said. “He was kind of like his old self, moving around and he made some plays in the open field. You just have to be optimistic that his health is getting back to where it was.”
Soon after, Phillips injured his left shoulder during an 11-on-11 “no-tackle” drill when fullback Conredge Collins lowered his shoulder and drilled Phillips, who hadn’t braced for full contact and was jarred by the hit.
• It was one of several impressive runs by Collins, who had his best practice of the spring after Wannstedt was critical of the Panthers’ running game.
Collins has had limited carries, but ran strong up the middle and to the outside against the first-team defense, which had trouble tackling him individually. On his next carry after running into Phillips, however, Collins saw Elijah Fields coming and slid to avoid a collision.
That’s the type of respect Fields already is commanding with his physical play. Even so, Porter made an impressive play by catching a pass over the middle, absorbing a hit from Fields and hanging onto the ball.
• Speaking of injuries, tight end Darrell Strong wore a sling and will miss the remainder of spring drills.
“Darrell got banged up. It’s a two-week injury, so he won’t be back,” Wannstedt said. “Even though he doesn’t want to hear this, he’ll be back with Buddy in about two weeks, his worst nightmare.”
Wannstedt said sophomore center John Bachman is “day-to-day” after twisting his right ankle in Saturday’s scrimmage, but is optimistic Bachman will return. “Hopefully, we can’t get him back for the spring game,” Wannstedt said, noting that it wasn’t the same leg (left) that Bachman broke last season. “This was a twist of the other knee, after somebody fell on him.”
Offensive linemen John Brown and Kevin Hughes also missed practice. That left the second-team line with Chase Clowser at left tackle, walk-on Alex Karabin at left guard, Scott Corson at center, Dom Williams at right guard and Frank Kochin at right tackle.
Grayshirt defensive end Justin Hargrove also was absent, and Tyler Tkach moved from defensive tackle to replace him. Don’t be surprised if Tkach stays put for a while. After playing end last season, his move this spring was hampered by a knee injury and he’s been pushed around a bit by some of his offensive counterparts.
• Tkach’s linemates made some big plays. Defensive end Greg Romeus beat Clowser and caught tailback Kevin Collier in the backfield for a loss. Craig Bokor blindsided Kevan Smith, hitting his right arm and forcing a fumble. And Derrell Jones got a huge cheer when he stepped in front of a screen pass intended for Collier and picked off Smith.
Dickerson also made a pair of nice plays after returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for two weeks. He chased Collier down on a toss sweep. Two plays later, he met Collier square and stood him up before a whistle.
• Receiver Derek Kinder earned first-team All-Big East honors last season, and has appeared to practice in cruise control at times. That’s probably because Kinder knows his job is safe while Oderick Turner, Marcel Pestano and T.J. Porter are competing for the other starting spot. But Kinder made a nice effort on a one-handed catch with safety Eric Thatcher draped over his back.
• Noticeable in his absence from contact drills was Lowell Robinson, who has been playing second-team safety alongside Fields. Robinson actually lined up at cornerback in some drills, but was replaced in 11-on-11 by walk-on Ross Ventrone.
Look for Ventrone to find another number, as he and Fields both wear No. 4 for the blue jerseys (defense). Duplicate numbers are allowed, but they have to be on opposite sides of the ball.
• The Panthers practice again Thursday afternoon, then will play their annual Blue-Gold Game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field. Admission is $5 (free for Pitt students and staff, and children 2 and under). Parking is available in Gold Lot 1 for $5 starting at 10:30 a.m.